Law Enforcement Training Connects Autism Advocates

Law Enforcement Training Connects Autism Advocates

Serve and protect encompasses many forms. Law enforcement immediately comes to mind. Police departments work 24/7 to ensure the safety of their communities.

However, they are not the only protective force in the state of Pennsylvania or even Montgomery County.

There is the Ruttenberg Autism Center, whose mission is helping people on the autism spectrum throughout their lives. Then, there are parents like Kristin Jackowski, who are fierce advocates.

Jackowski’s daughter, NavyAnna, 7, is on the autism spectrum and has an audio-processing disorder and ADHD. In 2016, the Plymouth Meeting mother lobbied for autism-friendly checkout lanes and other sensory-friendly experiences including visits with Santa. Through her continued advocacy, she connected with the Ruttenberg Center.

“I love to spread not just awareness, but acceptance,” said Jackowski “We love our daughter for exactly who she is and want the world to understand her.”

On April 25, community groups and autism advocates gathered together to help law enforcement officials understand how to better recognize and serve individuals with autism spectrum disorders. The Center trained the Plymouth Township Police Department through a course titled “Appreciating Autism: A Training Course for Law Enforcement Officers.”

The ninety-minute presentation featured curriculum geared to teach law enforcement officers to prepare for common interactions that occur when interacting with individuals with ASD. The Center focused on how to effectively handle interactions for the safety of the officers and the individuals.

“Everyone with autism is different,” said board-certified art therapist and licensed professional Katie Greble, who is the training and curriculum manager at the Center. Greble stressed that when she talks about individuals with ASD, it applies to both children and adults. “We want law enforcement to have the skills to maintain safety and support everyone in your community.”

Greble noted that everyone with a smartphone has a video camera in their pockets and commented that it’s “vital” to hold this type of training proactively instead of reacting to a poorly handled situation.

A person with autism might possess an impaired sense of danger and be overwhelmed by police presence. They may display a “fight or flight” response, reach for shiny objects and equipment, display “stimming” actions, and ignore verbal commands. If a law enforcement officer is not trained to recognize these as possible signs of ASD, they can interpret it as erratic or aggressive behavior.

According to the Center, people with autism are seven times more likely to have an encounter with law enforcement. The most common reasons are elopement, domestic issues, harassment, stalking, or they are victims of a crime.

The 2014 Pennsylvania Autism Census released a study that revealed the number of individuals with autism receiving services in all age groups increased “tremendously” since the original census study was released in 2005.  The study also stated adults with autism receiving services were the fastest growing group in the state and the trend was expected to continue.

Jessica Bollard, communications director at the Center, says Montgomery County contains among the highest percentage of individuals receiving autism services in Pennsylvania.

According to the Center, people with autism are seven times more likely to have an encounter with law enforcement.

“You read every day something terrible happened to someone with autism on the street,” said David M. Maola, Esq, the Center’s chief executive officer. “Everyone learns something from this training. Many people don’t recognize the signs at all. Unless you are dealing with someone every day who is on the spectrum you may not understand what they are doing is not out of the ordinary for someone with autism.”

The Plymouth Township Police Department encounters a higher instance of calls involving special needs individuals due to the number of group homes in the area.  

“Anytime we can get training that enhances the service we provide to our residents as well as people who come through the township, it’s always valuable to us,” said Lieutenant Karen Mabry, who has been on the force for 29 years.

Autism Training: Tips for Law Enforcement Officials

  • If an individual with ASD is missing, talk to the caregiver and ask: what are their interests? What are they afraid of? Where is the nearest body of water. Many elopement cases end up in drowning. Identify the nearest body of water and neighbor’s pools.
  • Don’t use euphemisms like, “are you pulling my leg?” An individual with autism might take it literally.
  • Make clear statements rather than asking questions. For instance, say “let’s go outside,” NOT “can you come outside with me?”
  • Avoid idioms, slang, and sarcasm.
  • Turn off sirens or lower the radio.
  • Use calming body language. If the person is sitting, also sit or crouch down to get on their level.
  • Respect personal space.
  • If restraint is needed, remember that individuals with autism tend to have an underdeveloped upper trunk and might resist due to sensory or tactile issues.
  • Use visual schedules like “first,” “then,” “next.”
  • When entering the home of an individual with ASD, don’t make assumptions. For example, the refrigerator may be locked because the person eats until they vomit or has a tendency to empty its contents. Bars may be on windows to prevent an individual with ASD from falling out.

About the Ruttenberg Autism Center

The Ruttenberg Autism Center presents “Appreciating Autism: A Training Course for Law Enforcement Officers” to police, fire departments, retail establishments, mental health agencies, foster parents, schools, amusement parks, and others. The course has been approved for credit under Continuing Law Enforcement Education by the Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commision.

The Ruttenberg Autism Center is a spinoff of the Center for Autism in Philadelphia. The Center for Autism was founded in 1955 by renowned child psychiatrist Dr. Bertram A. Ruttenberg and is the oldest autism center in the country. In 2015, the Ruttenberg Autism Center opened in Blue Bell and serves 2,000 families per year with people ranging in age from two-years-old to their early twenties.

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